ToWayne_Tantrum

ToWayne Tantrums

Idolizing Greg Boyd

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Many years ago, two men named Tom Belt and Dwayne Polk (I initially elected to keep these men anonymous, but have been told they would consider it “brave” of me to name them, so I’ll oblige them) became enamored with a theologian named Greg Boyd. It’s easy to understand their admiration. Boyd is a brilliant scholar and an accomplished minister. And since their admiration was not only for Boyd’s theology, but also how he was applying it in the local church, they both moved to the Minneapolis/St. Paul area where Boyd’s church, Woodland Hills, was and remains. One of them even joined the church’s staff for a time, but later left the staff.

Of particular interest for these two men, was Boyd’s criticism of both Classical theism and Process theism in his 1992 PhD dissertation “Trinity and Process.” In this thesis, Boyd describes God’s “unsurpassable aesthetic satisfaction”. (A phrase Tom and Dwayne have latched onto like it’s the Apostles’ Creed) This, Tom and Dwayne interpret as God’s “experience of imperturbable triune beatitude”. What this translates to is: God doesn’t experience any suffering or death in God’s self. Suffering or death cannot be attributed to God. God’s “bliss” in God’s self is never interrupted by suffering of any kind, not even sadness or pain over sin and injustice. Therefore, Tom and Dwayne abhor (for example) Moltmann’s theology of “God crucified.”

Homer_prancePart of their rejection of divine suffering is personal for these two. For different but similar reasons, each one finds it psychologically preferable to believe in a conception of God who does not suffer. Each finds it an indispensable part of their own personal psychological health. But another part of their rejection of divine suffering is their theological journey into Eastern Orthodox faith and belief. In this pursuit, they have adopted an interpretation of the patristic fathers’ theology that excludes divine suffering. Historical theology scholars continue to debate how much influence Greek philosophy exerted over the early theological development of Christian theology. And Open theists like Boyd (and many non-Open theists) have argued that Greek philosophy exerted undue influence on the development of early Christian theology, resulting in paradoxical statements about both “impassibility” and divine suffering. For Tom and Dwayne, there can be only one interpretation of patristic theology: Greek philosophy was right, and those streams of early Christian theology (or their interpretations of them) which embraced divine impassibility were right.

When Shattered Illusions Lead to Scapegoating

However, their project encountered a devastating blow a few years ago. Boyd, in his continued studies since 1992, came to repudiate his earlier rejections of divine suffering and began writing and preaching on God’s suffering and death on the Cross. Boyd was not saying anything new in Christian theology; he was merely teaching what Scripture reveals and other theologians interested in the liberation of the oppressed and God’s response to injustice have been saying for eons. Tom and Dwayne associated Boyd’s position with “Kenoticism” and were utterly heartbroken. Their idol had fallen. Or, as they put it, “stepped off the edge.”

Boyd steps off the edge — Part 1
Boyd steps off the edge — Part 2

Simpsons_wrathThis is the genesis of the current debate in which I’ve been implicated. I dared to defend Boyd’s position and have become the sole scapegoat of their wrath. They can’t take on Boyd, for obvious reasons, so they choose instead to vent their rage at me. They hurl insults at me because they continue to be disappointed in their theological hero who now thinks they are out to lunch.

Here’s their most recent attack against me.

In the process, these two have cut off direct communication with me and rejected any olive branch offerings of peace and reconciliation I’ve extended. Instead, they only mention me to insult me in their blog posts.

A few of the things this sad saga demonstrates are:

  1. The higher you place your theological heroes on a pedestal, the further they fall when they disappoint you. Don’t make idols of pastors or scholars; they’re human. God will shatter your illusions that any man (or woman) can fulfill the role only God should have in our lives.
  2. When you allow your psychological needs to drive your pursuit of theological truth, you will inevitably run aground of the biblical witness, reason, and even tradition. The truth is not subject to our desires for psychological comfort. Often the truth disrupts our comfort for our own good. When this happens, the emotionally mature accept the truth and adjust. The emotional immature plug their ears and bury their heads in the sand.
  3. It’s a tragedy when Christian men are willing to place their own egos before the call to peace and reconciliation. Tom and Dwayne profess faith in Christ yet have rejected all attempts at peace and reconciliation. Their profound sadness over the end of the their illusions about the perfection of Boyd’s theology has led to a breach of their ethical integrity.
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Chemical & Idolatry: Reflections on a Jack Garratt Track and the Apocalypse of John

Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship—be it J.C. or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles—is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness. Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings. They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing.

— David Foster Wallace, “This is Water”

Late last year, I fell headlong into the music of Jack Garratt. It started with his EP, Remnants, and continued with the release of his first full album, Phase. There’s too much to say about my love for his music. Suffice to say I find it enchanting.

Meanwhile, in my teaching capacity as a pastor, I’ve been immersed in the study of Revelation. Rather than charting the Great Tribulation, or attempting to decipher which rogue agent on the world’s stage is the “antichrist,” or some such quixotic project (as Dispensationalists are want to do), I’ve been teaching John’s Apocalypse using the cruciform-centric hermeneutic that has been developed by such scholars as Richard Bauckham, Michael J. Gorman, N. T. Wright, and Greg Boyd. I’ve also been learning from works by both David DeSilva and Brian Blount, who read it through the lenses of postcolonial empire criticism and the experience of the African American church in America, respectively. And I also have to give props to Brian Zahnd’s excellent teaching ministry via the Word of Life podcast. He’s spent some extensive time in Revelation in recent months/years and it has been highly formative.

A second lens through which I’ve been reading Revelation is pedagogical. For this I blame the works of James K. A. Smith—particularly his book Desiring the Kingdom, of which he has recently published a layman’s version called You Are What You Love. Smith has succeeded in shifting my focus as a teacher from the dissemination of information to the inspiration of imaginations for the purpose of spiritual formation. (Not that I’ve mastered this; I’ve still got a lot of pedagogical baggage to overcome.)

One of the unexpected discoveries I’ve made thus far has been just how much of Revelation is pastorally concerned with spiritual formation. This should have been more obvious to me, considering that the book is so clearly addressed to seven churches from their bishop. However, I’ve spent so much of my Christian life surrounded by those who read this book as a roadmap to the “end times,” that the pastoral value of the book has rarely been presented as anything more than its ability to predict the future.

This brings me to “Chemical” by Jack Garratt.

Phase has become the soundtrack to my life for the past several months. I listen to it in the car and I listen to it while I write sermons. “Chemical” is one of the tracks that has fascinated me the most. What initially captured my attention was this:

And when you pray, he will not answer
Although you may hear voices on your mind
They won’t be kind

And when you pray, he will not answer
I know this for I ask him all the time
To reassure my mind  

Naturally, my pastoral ears perk up when prayer is mentioned. But this is clearly not a positive assessment. I’m almost ashamed to admit I didn’t understand what this track was about until I watched the video—and then the brilliance of this track blew my mind.

John of Patmos does something unparalleled in the New Testament. Instead of writing in the didactic style of the epistles, which Evangelical Modernists love, or the narrative style of the Gospels and Acts, he writes in the apocalyptic mode of a Hebrew prophet. He writes a book that takes many of the things Jesus preached in his famous “Olivet Discourse” and expands them into something that resembles a Greek drama more than a sermon. Relentlessly paraded before the eyes of our imaginations is a graphic and often grotesque onslaught of nightmarishly disturbing pictures. But as the cruciform-centric hermeneutic has taught us, these images are not meant to be taken as a journalistic, if phenomenological, account of future events. Instead, they are symbols of realities as true today as they were nineteen hundred years ago.

The Seer’s primary pastoral concern is the vision of ‘the good life’ toward which these fledgling churches (and by extension our churches today) were living. Every day, in a thousand different ways, they and we are tempted to place our trust in a story that is not the story of Jesus’s incarnation, self-giving death, and resurrection. The story in John’s day was the “Pax Romana”; the story for many of us today is the “American Dream.” The way John combats this lie is with the truth that empire is beastly and to follow its way is adultery for the people whom God has redeemed. John gives his congregations a new imagining of what ‘the good life’ is all about. Instead of conquest as violent domination, conquest becomes giving faithful witness to God’s grace in and through Jesus. The Lion of the Tribe of Judah, Messiah Jesus, is revealed as the little, slaughtered Lamb who yet stands and reigns from the very center of the God’s throne. True power is not located in the military might of Rome’s armies but in the self-giving love and wisdom of God demonstrated on the Cross and in the Resurrection.

“Revelation does not contain two competing Christologies and theologies—one of power and one of weakness—symbolized by the Lion and the Lamb, respectively. Rather, Revelation presents Christ as the Lion who reigns as the Lamb, not in spite of being the Lamb. […] ‘Lamb power’ is ‘God power,’ and ‘God power’ is ‘Lamb power.’ If these claims are untrue, then Jesus is not in any meaningful way a faithful witness.” [1]

The New Heaven and New Earth is a vision the world gone wrong finally made right. It is a reimagining of the vision of shalom ubiquitous among the writings of the Hebrew prophets—not just some tranquil “peace,” but the world as it should be. This is the vision the churches are to be proleptically embodying now in part as a foretaste of what’s to come.

But, like a fish in water, we unconsciously swim in the current of our surrounding culture and the desires of our hearts are molded and shaped by our environment. We are indoctrinated into believing that ‘the good life’ is found in the acquisition of power, wealth, and pleasure. We surrender our agency to the pursuit of these ends and we become instruments of the powers that be. This is what the psalmist is describing when he warns that placing our trust in human-made idols numbs us to the life-giving Spirit of the Creator God.

The idols of the nations are merely things of silver and gold, shaped by human hands. They have mouths but cannot speak, and eyes but cannot see. They have ears but cannot hear, and mouths but cannot breathe. And those who make idols are just like them, as are all who trust in them. — Psalm 135.15-18 NLT

Here’s how N. T. Wright puts it:

“You become what you worship: so, if you worship that which is not God, you become something other than the image-bearing human being you were meant and made to be. […] Worship idols—blind, deaf, lifeless things—and you become blind, deaf and lifeless yourself. Murder, magic, fornication and theft are all forms of blindness, deafness and deadliness, snatching at the quick fix for gain, power or pleasure while forfeiting another bit of genuine humanness.” [2]

“Chemical” is about the power we give our idols—with which they mercilessly destroy our humanity. The “love” idols have for us is the “love” of an abusive master. It is not a relationship of mutuality, interdependence, nor understanding; it is a relationship of utter domination. As David Foster Wallace put it, “[they] will eat you alive.”

My love is overdone, selfish and domineering
It won’t sit up on the shelf
So don’t try to reason with my love
My love is powerful, ruthless and unforgiving
It won’t think beyond itself
So don’t try to reason with my love

My love is chemical, shallow and chauvinistic
It’s an arrogant display
So don’t try to reason with my love

The apostle Paul famously describes love in a letter to the Jesus-disciples of Corinth. If you’ve ever been to a wedding, you probably know at least this much Scripture.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. — I Corinthians 13.4-8 NIV

Our idols aren’t patient or kind; they aren’t self-giving or forgiving. Our idols demand subservience at all costs—especially the loss of our humanity.

The pastoral mission of John of Patmos is to inspire the imaginations of God’s people—to place before them the vision of the Lamb Who Was Slain—the only One worthy to reign in heaven—because he is the embodiment of self-giving love. The Lamb moves us to worship not because of some ‘shock and awe’ display of brute force. No, the Lamb moves us to worship because the self-giving love of God smites our hearts with a power that could never be possessed by tanks or bombs. The image of God being restored in God’s redeemed people is the vocation of serving as priestly rulers on God’s behalf, reflecting God’s loving reign into the world God loves.

The questions with which John of Patmos confronts us are of allegiance and trajectory.

What vision of ‘the good life’ is forming the desires of our hearts—the shape and aim of our lives—through the everyday practices in which we often unconsciously participate?

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  1. Michael J. Gorman, Reading Revelation Responsibly: Uncivil Worship and Witness Following the Lamb Into the New Creation (Cascade Books, 2011), p.139.
  2. N. T. Wright, Revelation For Everyone (Westminster John Knox, 2011), p.92.
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The Lamb at the Center of Worship: St. John’s Revelation and Greg Boyd’s Cruciform-centric Hermeneutic

Intro: Christians Who Don’t Worship Christ?

Until recently, I took it for granted that all Christians understood and agreed on at least one simple fact: That the Bible teaches Messiah Jesus of Nazareth (his life and teachings) is the definitive, perfect, and final revelation of God. After all, the writer of Hebrews makes this much clear:

“In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.”
– Heb. 1.1-3 (NIV, emphasis added)

Or consider Jesus’s answer to Phillip’s request to see the “Father” (God) to whom Jesus keeps referring,

“Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.”

Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?
– John 14.8-9 (NIV, emphasis added)

Or, if Jesus’s words don’t impress you (as has especially become the trend among Calvinists), and you need Paul’s didactic teaching style to convince you, consider this gem:

“See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ. For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form…
– Col. 2.8-9 (NIV, emphasis added)

What a fool I’ve been: I presumed there was at least one common area of agreement among those who call themselves “Christians”—that we worship Christ!  But, from recent discussions online and offline, it appears I was wrong. Instead, what I’ve learned is that some look for a god behind and beyond Jesus. For them, other revelation must be added to Jesus in order for them to receive God’s “full” self-revelation. Why they insist on calling themselves “Christians” then, I couldn’t tell you. Perhaps a more appropriate label might be “godians.”

greg-boyd_croppedIn particular, the “Christians” with whom I’ve been discussing are angry about Greg Boyd’s proposal of a “cruciform-centric” hermeneutic 1.  Boyd is unabashedly influenced by (Neo) Anabaptist theology, which has historically advocated for a Christ-centered (“christocentric”) reading of Scripture. This is nothing new. Even (New) Calvinists claim to be Christ-centered these days. 2  What Boyd adds to this interpretive methodology is the biblical idea that discipleship is the process of emulating one’s Master. (Shocking, I know!) Since Jesus laid down his life, and we are Jesus’s disciples, we too are called to lay down our lives—to demonstrate radical, self-sacrificial love (Eph. 5.1-2; Phil. 2.1-11; I Jn. 3.16). This process is now being called “cruciformity”—being formed by the cross, living out cross-shaped love. 3

The objection from some is that this approach is an external grid being imposed on the Scripture, and is therefore eisegesis (importing meaning to the Text), rather than exegesis (drawing meaning from the Text). Objectors also claim that such an approach undermines Scripture’s inspiration and authority. By applying the lens of Jesus’s cross to passages where God is depicted as violent (for example), these objectors also claim Boyd is attempting to ignore portions of Scripture or cut them out of the Bible entirely. 4

In what follows, I will demonstrate that the Bible itself, namely the book of Revelation, teaches Jesus-disciples to apply the cruciform-centric hermeneutic that Boyd describes. In so doing, I will prove that the cruciform-centric hermeneutic is not some external grid being imposed upon Scripture, but is instead Scripture’s own teaching for Christians. Therefore, the cruciform-centric hermeneutic is the appropriate interpretive methodology for Christians (i.e. those who worship Christ).

The Parallel of Worship in Heaven and Worship in the Church

Throne-Room-Heaven-RevelationThe Apocalypse (“Revelation”) of St. John is a widely misunderstood book. Many Western Christians, influenced by popular forms of Dispensationalism 5  the likes of which can be found in the Left Behind books and movies, think of it as a future prediction code to be deciphered. Many search the book looking for clues about what will happen in the “end times.” While John certainly does speak of Christ’s return and sees a vision of the final telos of history, the primary flaw this approach suffers is that it overlooks the immediate and pastoral context. Revelation was written for us, but it was not written to us. Instead, it was written to seven churches by their pastor, the apostle John.

With this fact in mind, we can begin to understand John’s authorial intent. By reminding ourselves of the historical context, we can begin to piece together the meaning the book had for its original hearers. Then we can attempt to draw application from that meaning for our context today.

The setting is late first-century, Roman-occupied “Asia Minor,” where Christian congregations have been formed, and where severe persecution has afflicted the followers of the Way. Nevertheless, these courageous believers (many of whom are Jewish) gather together weekly to worship on the “Lord’s Day,” which is Sunday—the day Jesus rose from the dead. Why Sunday and not Saturday? The answer is both simple and profound: the Resurrection changed everything! The Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, is alive and reigns forever! He has defeated Satan, the powers, and death itself! The early Christians worshipped on Sunday because the early Christians worshipped Jesus!

Add to this what we know about the structure of early Christian worship:

  • First, early Christians were baptized with water as a sign that they have died with Christ to their old live and have been raised with Christ to new life. Christ is at the heart of this ritual, which serves as initiation into the Church, the family of believers.
  • Second, early Christians studied the Scriptures (the Hebrew Bible) and received teaching on their meaning. In light of Christ’s coming, the meaning of the Hebrew Bible has been complete transformed. Every apostolic author in the New Testament quotes the Hebrew Bible to teach that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah. The Advent of Christ into the world has completely changed the way the early Christians approach the Hebrew Scriptures. In them, they now find Christ. 6
  • Third, early Christians celebrated a meal together called a “Love Feast” or what some call an “Agape Meal.” At this meal, believers in Christ shared in table fellowship regardless of socio-economic status in the world’s eyes, regardless of ethnicity, regardless of age, and regardless of gender. During this meal, the Christians would remember the death their Lord and Savior suffered for them. In the participation of the Eucharistic meal, the early Christians worshipped Christ—weekly.

Eugene Peterson writes,

“The throne, the sea, and the altar are the glorious originals of the pulpit, font, and table in the house churches where St. John’s congregations gathered week by week in their Lord’s Day worship.” 7

Who is Worthy to Open the Scroll?

hebrew-scroll-torahAt the center of the heavenly worship gathering sits a throne—the throne of God. By the way some Christians speak of God, the throne should be empty. Seated on the throne should be an amorphous cloud of undefinable yet all-encompassing god-ness. But that is not what John sees. Standing at the center of the throne, the seat of power and sovereignty and rule, the center of all worship, all power, is the crucified Lamb: Jesus of Nazareth (Rev. 5.6). This should shock and arrest any Christian who does not think Jesus is the definitive revelation of God. This imagery is clear: Jesus is God! There is no god behind, beyond Jesus the Messiah! There is no god behind, beyond the Crucified One!

What happens next boggles and perplexes many modern readers.

I saw a mighty angel proclaiming with a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it. And I began to weep bitterly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it. Then one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep. See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.”

Then I saw between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered…
– Rev. 5.1-6 (NIV)

For many modern readers, the “scroll” John speaks of here is mysterious. Theories abound and are filled with symbolism, secrets, futuristic woes and blessings. But because we have set out to understand what the Text meant to its original hearers first, before we attempt to apply its meaning to our context, we do not suffer from such delusions. Instead, we remember that the worship of the early Christians prominently featured the scrolls of Scripture. In fact, the people of God have worshipped God with the reading of God’s Spirit-inspired Texts for hundreds of years. In Jewish worship, the Torah was read aloud in synagogues every Sabbath day, and also the scrolls of the prophets. In Christian worship, the same scrolls were opened, but with new meaning and a new Subject: King Jesus, the Lord of Lords, YHWH Incarnate.

[Jesus] went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. And he stood up to read. The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to release the oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, and he began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
– Luke 4.16-21 (NIV)

The Scriptures that the Jews read every Sabbath day were sealed, shrouded in mystery, bound up waiting until the Word, the One by Whom all things were spoken into existence, would stand before humanity and declare that the time has come for them to be fulfilled! The hearts of the Jewish believers were veiled, and a veil remained each time the Hebrew Scriptures were read. That is, until Jesus came! Jesus lifts the veil, revealing the Truth, uncovering mysteries. (II Cor. 3.7-18)

Jesus is the One who reveals the Truth of the Scriptures. Jesus is the One who uncovers the mystery long sealed in the Sacred Text.

[Jesus] said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.
– Luke 24.25-27 (NIV)

Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this:

“Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
and like a lamb silent before its shearer,
so he does not open his mouth.
In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth.”

The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus.
– Acts 8.29-35 (NIV)

Only Jesus is worthy to open the scroll, because only Jesus has suffered and laid down his life for humanity. Only Jesus is worthy to open the scroll, because only Jesus is the embodiment of YHWH’s Wisdom.

Again Peterson illuminates,

“Scroll” to a first-century Christian would mean scripture. The scrolls they were most familiar with were the great scrolls of scripture in the synagogues. Scrolls were respected and valued. God’s people believe that God speaks, that he tells us who he is and what he does. He is not a deus absconditus but a deus revelatus. His words are spoken to his people so that they will know his actions for them, his will in them. And these words were written in scrolls. It is to be expected in the act of worship that a scroll will appear. But the scroll is sealed. […]

In the midst of the great act of worship, St. John had wept because there was no one to unseal the scroll and proclaim God’s word personally to him (Rev. 5:4). Then Jesus Christ, in the form of the Lamb, came forward to unseal the scroll, that is, to preach to him. Immediately his weeping ceased: God reveals his word as Christ preaches to us. Is there meaning in the evil chaos of history? We hope there is a clue tucked away in the rubble. The unsealing of the scroll—the revelation of Jesus Christ whereby God’s will is known among us—is a proclamation of this good news in the midst of history. There is a correspondence between what is going on in the midst of worship and what is going on in the midst of history, and Jesus Christ, unsealing the scroll, provides it. We do not have to wait for the future revelation to find the meaning. We do not have to unravel a puzzle to figure out the meaning. It is presented to us. And Christ is the one who presents it.” 8

The Cross-Shaped Hermeneutic of Obedience

cruciform-lightJesus calls his disciples to take up their crosses and follow him (Mt. 10.38, 16.24; Mk. 8.34; Lk. 9.23, 14.27). To follow Jesus means to live like he lived (I Jn. 2.6). To live as Jesus lived, we too must lay down our lives for others (Eph. 5.1-2; Phil. 2.1-11; I Jn. 3.16). For Jesus-disciples, the cross is more than a historical event—it becomes a Way of Life (Gal. 6.14). This is the “cruciformity” to which Boyd and Gorman refer.

The Jesus-disciple lives a life formed by their Master’s example, emulating Jesus’s cross-shaped love. Not only is our interpretation of Scripture informed by this fact, but it informs our interpretation of all life! Every person we encounter, every obstacle we face, every achievement is another opportunity to love like Jesus—to die to ourselves and the world, growing in the life of the age to come. The more we live it out, the more the Scriptures become clear. The Anabaptists call this the “hermeneutic of obedience.” Jesus didn’t say the truth will set us free, then we will hold to his teaching. No, he said we must hold to his teaching—then we will know the truth and be set free (Jn. 8.31-32). Obedience precedes the liberation of enlightenment. “Doing” the Scriptures reveals their truth. And “doing” the Scriptures means obeying Jesus. He is our Teacher, our Master. He is the Lord—the Crucified One.

Conclusion: Christians Worship the Lamb Who Was Slain

The life of Jesus’s disciples is a life of worship. We demonstrate our loyalty, our allegiance to Jesus by following his example and holding to his teaching. In dying with Christ, we live. Being in Christ means living crucified lives—lives formed by the cross—lives of demonstrative, unconditional, self-sacrificial love.

In worship, now as in the first-century, we read the Holy Scriptures. Only now, because of our discipleship, we read them anew. They have been opened to us by the Messiah, the only Worthy One. Only the Lamb is worthy to open the scrolls because only the Lamb has been slain for us. And only in the Lamb’s sacrifice is God fully revealed. Now the veil is lifted, mysteries are uncovered, and the seal is broken.

At the center of Christian worship is the Lamb who was slain. Whether we are celebrating baptism: our old lives being buried with Christ, and being raised with Christ to a new life; or whether we are sharing in the Eucharistic meal, celebrating the Final Passover Lamb, slain for us; or whether we are reading and teaching from the Holy Scriptures, the scrolls now open by the Wisdom of God; Jesus the Messiah is the starting place and telos of worship—the Alpha and the Omega.

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  1. “Hermeneutic” refers to interpretation, especially of the Bible. Boyd’s proposal is that Christians interpret the Bible with a Christo-centric (Jesus-centered) lens. But more than that—that Christians remember that the Jesus through whom God is perfectly revealed is the Jesus who died on the cross. And we, his disciples, are to follow his example. That is what “cruciform” means: to be formed by the cross. Therefore, Boyd’s suggestion is that our discipleship informs our biblical interpretation. You can read first-hand about Boyd’s proposal for a “cruciform-centric” hermeneutic in his upcoming book, Crucifixion of the Warrior God (IVP 2014?), and on the ReKnew Ministries blog here:
    Christ-Centered or Cross-Centered?
    Answering an Objection to a Cross-Centered Approach to Scripture [Q&A]
    Cruciform Aikido Pt 1: Jesus and the Violent God
  2. Matt Chandler, Creature of the Word: The Jesus-Centered Church (The Village Church, 2012); “In Defense of a Christ-Centered Hermeneutic” by Mike Leake http://sbcvoices.com/in-defense-of-a-christ-centered-hermeneutic-or-a-reply-to-dr-eric-hankins/;  “Jesus Centered Reformed Theology” http://www.acts29network.org/sermon/jesus-centered-reformed-theology–san-diego-2006/.
  3. Michael J. Gorman, Cruciformity: Paul’s Narrative Spirituality of the Cross (Eerdmans, 2001); Gorman, Inhabiting the Cruciform God: Kenosis, Justification, and Theosis in Paul’s Narrative Soteriology (Eerdmans, 2009).
  4. Ultra-conservative Evangelicals (or more accurately: Fundamentalists) routinely confuse the rejection of their interpretations of passages in the Bible with rejection of the Bible itself. They make the mistake of considering their interpretation to be authoritative, rather than the God whom the Bible reveals. What is gained by such tight control on interpretive methodology is political power. By insisting that their interpretative methodology is the only valid methodology, they maintain the status quo and preserve their gatekeeper positions. This is at the heart of the objections to Boyd’s proposed hermeneutic.
  5. Dispensationalism
  6. John 5.39; Luke 24.25-27; Gal. 3.8; I Pet. 2.6-8; Heb. 1.5-13; Rev. 19.15.
  7. Eugene Peterson, Reversed Thunder: The Revelation of John & the Praying Imagination (Harper Collins 1988), p.63.
  8. Ibid., 64, 73-74.
Boyd_of_Straw1

Building a Boyd of Straw with Sound Bite Scholarship

1. Historical Setting:

Openness-of-GodThe Openness of God was published in 19941 and made significant waves in evangelical theological scholarship circles. The view detailed in that book wasn’t new; it had been held by many Christian theologians throughout Church history2, but what made the book so significant is that the evangelical theological landscape in the United States had shifted and a new regime was in power: Neo-Calvinists3. These conservative evangelical scholars viewed Open theology as a threat to their new found hegemony, so they sought to discredit and marginalize Open theists. Two of the clearest examples of this were the attempt in 2000 by John Piper to have Greg Boyd ousted from the faculty of Bethel Seminary, the denominational seminary of the Baptist General Conference (now “Converge”), and the 2002 attempt to expel John Sanders and Clark Pinnock from the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS).4 In both cases the complaints were brought by Neo-Calvinists. Another casualty of these Neo-Calvinist inquisitions was Roger Olson, a classical Arminian scholar. He has written candidly about the dishonest and dishonorable ways he was treated by Neo-Calvinists simply for suggesting Open theists were not heretics and that Open theism deserves to be consider a legitimate evangelical position.5 In 2010, Dr. Olson had this to say,

“The controversy has largely died down now.  But there are many stories yet to be told about it. I believe much of the controversy over open theism among evangelicals was fueled by misinformation, misrepresentation and down right demagoguery.  In many places and at many times open theism and open theists did not receive a fair hearing.  And I know of cases in which evangelical critics knowingly misrepresented open theism in order to create fear of it among the untutored (i.e., people who would never pick up and read a book by an open theist).

As I look back on that decade long controversy now, my heart is heavy for evangelicalism.  I was profoundly disillusioned by the dishonesty and lack of sincerity of many evangelical luminaries who I know read books by open theists and often talked with open theists about their views and nevertheless went public with blatant misrepresentations.  I was also profoundly disillusioned by the heat of the controversy in which some evangelical scholars and leaders hurled accusations and charges against open theists that were completely out of proportion to the amount of time and effort they had spent in dialogue with their fellow evangelicals who either were open theists or sympathized with them.”6

The beginning of the decade Olson describes is the setting in which an author with whom I am unfamiliar, named Paul Kjoss Helseth, wrote a critique of Greg Boyd’s Open theism for the Journal of the ETS (the very group that would vote to investigate Pinnock and Sanders a year later). There is no doubt Helseth’s work helped to fuel the flames of discord that led to the 2002 ETS witch hunt. The claim of the article is that Boyd’s Open theism describes and promotes an arbitrary and malevolent conception of God over and against all his own claims to the contrary. The article is titled, “ON DIVINE AMBIVALENCE: OPEN THEISM AND THE PROBLEM OF PARTICULAR EVILS”.7 As Dr. Olson so poignantly put it, Helseth’s article is filled with “misinformation, misrepresentation and down right demagoguery.” In this brief refutation, I will address many of the caricatures and fallacies contained in the article, though an exhaustive reckoning is far beyond the scope of this piece. I’m certain a book-length treatment would scarcely provide space. Instead, I must limit myself to exposing only a portion of the many Man of Straw arguments, logical fallacies, and dirty scholarship tricks this article includes. To start, I will detail many of the foundational errors this article makes.

2. Building a Boyd of Straw:

YourLogicalFallacyIs_NoTrueScotsmanIn order to construct a convincing Boyd of Straw, you have to gather up enough straw with which to stuff him. Helseth begins gathering straw by making several foundational presuppositions and performing several acts of semantical sleight of hand.

First, he presumes there is one Christian tradition, one “orthodoxy,” and it just so conveniently happens to be his. The first sentence reads, “Throughout the history of the Christian Church, orthodox theologians have claimed that God is an omniscient being who has exhaustive knowledge of the whole scope of cosmic history.” John Sanders describes this tactic aptly. He writes,

“Some have criticized openness from departing from ‘the’ tradition and a few even called it ‘heresy.’ A few responses are in order. First, ‘the’ tradition is not singular for there are multiple streams. Those who accuse us of rejecting ‘the’ tradition usually enshrine their own particular tradition as ‘the’ tradition.”8

Helseth isn’t forthcoming about the tradition of which he is a part. He doesn’t identify the perspective from which he is approaching Open theism. By this, it is clear he intends to give readers the impression he is somehow neutral. The reality is, Helseth is a Neo-Calvinist—a member of the very same group who felt their political power in the evangelical academy was being threatened by Open theism. His tradition is not “the” tradition; it is one of many. He does not represent classical Arminians like Roger Olson and he does not represent Relational theologians9 of any stripe. He is among a narrow stream of Christian theology that holds several presuppositions about the nature of God, time, free agency, Scripture, and experience. Transparency, it appears, is not a value of Helseth’s, or is not expedient in his attack upon Open theism.

YourLogicalFallacyIs_BlackWhiteSecond, the author uses semantical sleight of hand with phrasing and rhetorical questions. Several times in the opening few paragraphs, the author sets before readers false dichotomies. Every false dichotomy boils down to a fool’s choice that isn’t really necessary to make, nor being advocated by Open theists. For example, he writes:

“Must we conclude that we are less than genuinely free because God knows everything there is to know about what has been, is, and will be—including the future free decisions of his creatures? Or, must we rather acknowledge that God is less than exhaustively omniscient because we in fact are significantly free?”

The bizarre nature of the phrase the author here uses, “exhaustively omniscient,” betrays his attempt to fool uncritical readers whom he has already biased against Openness by suggesting it is heresy. By the author’s own definition, omniscience is, “know[ing] all true propositions about everything that has been, is, and will be, and [doing] so in a manner that extends to the minutiae of past, present, and future reality.” Open theists agree with this definition and affirm divine omniscience. To know All true propositions is by logical necessity “exhaustive”—unless the author is aware of a sense in which All can mean non-exhaustive. Here are Open theists affirming divine omniscience:

“Though open theists are often accused of denying God’s omniscience because they deny the classical view of foreknowledge, this criticism is unfounded. Open theists affirm God’s omniscience as emphatically as anybody does. The issue is not whether God’s knowledge is perfect. It is. The issue is about the nature of the future God’s perfectly knows.” – Greg Boyd 10

“Everyone agrees that God is omniscient and knows everything that any being could know. He knows everything that has existed, everything that now exists, and everything that could exist in the future.” – Clark Pinnock 11

“…the omniscient God knows all that can be known given the sort of world he chose to create. […] There are several views about the content of divine omniscience (for example, Molinism and Thomism) and though everyone agrees that if something is knowable then God knows it, they disagree about what is possible to know.” – John Sanders 12

“All Christians agree that God is omniscient and therefore knows all of reality perfectly. The debate over God’s foreknowledge is rather a debate over the content of reality that God perfectly knows. […] The view I shall defend agrees unequivocally with the classical view that God is omniscient.” – Greg Boyd 13

Following the author’s rhetorical false dichotomies designed to misinform readers about what Open theists actually believe, he quickly moves to misrepresenting Open theism as a novel idea. This is another common device Neo-Calvinists use to throw shade on Open theism. If they can convince people it is new, they may also be able to convince people the view has no merit. So Helseth claims Open theism has been concocted by “contemporary postconservative theologians.” While Pinnock, Sanders, and Boyd might be classified by some as post-conservative, Boyd (the subject of the article) has never self-identified as one. Neither is it true that Open theism begins with post-conservatives at all. After fourth century proponents, and proponents in the Middle Ages, the next group to advocate for the Open View were some sixteenth-century Remonstrants. After that, several eighteenth to twentieth-century Methodists like Adam Clarke, Billy Hibbard, and Lorenzo D. McCabe were proponents.14 I’m not the first to make such an observation, but it strikes me as more than a little ironic that the most vocal critics of “new” theological ideas in the U.S. evangelical academy are the “Reformed” Neo-Calvinists. Obviously they are no longer reforming, and have forgotten how novel their own movement is within Church history.

Third, Helseth presents Open theists as redefining terms. This is another common ploy to discredit a view with which Neo-Calvinists disagree. Their definition of terms is the accurate, orthodox one, while anyone with a different usage is heterodox. However, once again, the author has already defined omniscience and Open theists agree with his definition and affirm divine omniscience. Therefore, no redefinition has taken place. Instead, what has happened is that Open theists recognize the true propositions which God exhaustively knows to include not only what “will” or “will not” happen, but also what “might” or “might not” happen. God knows that it is true I “might” finish writing this piece, and God knows that it is true I “might not.” Neo-Calvinists like Helseth don’t acknowledge the reality of “might” and “might not” true propositions, and therefore, he accuses Open theists of redefining. But both Helseth and Boyd affirm that no matter how many true propositions there are, fewer or greater, God knows them all (or “exhaustively” if that the term Helseth prefers). Helseth’s claim that, “Open theists insist… [God’s] omniscience does not extend to the details of future reality in an exhaustive fashion” is false. Instead, Open theists “insist” that the “detail[s]” of the future include contingencies that might or might not obtain—and that God knows them as such—because God’s knowledge is co-extensive with reality. What does not exist in the future are the settled “will” and “will not” true propositions regarding the choices of free agents (both human and angelic) that are not logically or causally necessary. Those true propositions do not exist because they are logically contradictory. At this point, Helseth gets his first fact about what Open theists believe correct. “Like square circles or two-sided triangles, future free decisions cannot be known because they simply do not exist; they do not constitute a part of knowable reality.” This acknowledgement of an actual Open theist belief only serves to further expose the falseness of his prior claims. If he recognizes that Open theist don’t believe “future free decisions” exist as part of “knowable reality,” how then can it be true that their non-existence contributes to a lack of “exhaustive” omniscience? Obviously, it cannot. But Helseth carries on obliviously with either a logical error or an intentional deception.

For another case of Helseth’s sleight of hand semantics, he manipulates the phrase “exhaustive foreknowledge.” He claims Open theists deny such foreknowledge even though he has just established that Open theists believe settled future free decisions are logically contradictory and therefore non-existent. Open theists, in fact, do Not deny exhaustive foreknowledge; Open theists deny Exhaustive Definite Foreknowledge. The “Definite” part relates to settled, future, free choices. Since Open theists deny these are settled, they deny they are definite. They do not, however, deny that they are “exhaustive” or “foreknowledge.”

YourLogicalFallacyIs_GeneticFourth, Helseth quotes another critic of Open theism named Ronald Nash, who attributes incompatiblism15 to Aristotle in a classic guilt-by-association argument. No evidence that Aristotle is the father of incompatiblism is presented, even though it is not an indisputable fact. Oxford philosophy professor Terence H. Irwin writes,

“Some ascribe to Aristotle an ‘incompatibilist’ view of the relation between final causes and the underlying material and efficient causes. […] Probably, however, Aristotle takes a ‘compatibilist’ view. He seems to believe that even if every goal-directed process were wholly constituted by material processes, each of which can be explained in material-efficient terms, the final-causal explanation would still be the only adequate explanation of the process as a whole.”16

This is as good a time as any to address another smoke-and-mirrors technique Neo-Calvinists have been using to discredit Open theists for nearly 20 years—let’s call it “the pagan card.” Ever since the 1994 book that started it all, The Openness of God, Open theists have critiqued “classical theism.”17 In fact, Boyd, the subject of Helseth’s article, critiques classical theism quite often. He has traced the idea of changeless perfection back to Platonic philosophy and the influence of Middle Platonist philosophers like Plutarch and Plotinus on early Church theology.18 However, contrary to the Neo-Calvinist caricature, Boyd and other Open theists do Not reject classical theism due to the notion that all pagan philosophy is corrupt or simply because it is foreign to the New Testament. Open theists are not playing “the pagan card.” Here, for example, are John Sanders’ thoughts:

“…the early church fathers did not sell out to Hellenism… It was legitimate for them to work with the best Greek philosophical thinking of the day just as theologians today attempt to utilize the best learning in fields such as linguistics, psychology and philosophy. They desired to distinguish the Christian God from the gods of polytheism and though they found ideas in the philosophical discussions of deity useful for this end, they were also critical of the various philosophical conceptions of divinity.”19

Open theists do not advocate a purging of all philosophical elements foreign to the biblical tradition. Open theists simply advocate for critical analysis of those philosophies and comparison with the biblical data. The fact that Neo-Calvinists have lashed back at Open theists with guilt-by-association arguments involving Greek philosophers only further demonstrates their lack of understanding of the Open theist critique of classical theism, and the moral bankruptcy of the Neo-Calvinist response. Rather than critically assessing their own presuppositions, they would much rather simply accuse Open theists of having their own patron pagan philosophers looming in the background. This is the type of sad tricks people resort to when they feel they’re in danger of losing political power. It is not the sort of scholarship followers of Christ have any business engaging in.

YourLogicalFallacyIs_AdHomenemFifth, Helseth misrepresents the motives of Open theists like Boyd as if he himself has exhaustive definite knowledge of their hearts. He writes,

“New interpretations of the relationship between divine omniscience and human freedom are in order, they argue, not only because classical interpretations are lacking in exegetical sophistication, but also because traditional interpretations are no longer palatable to philosophically astute theologians living at the beginning of the twenty-first century.”

This is another attempt to convince readers Open theism is new and dangerous, but it is also a false portrayal of Open theist motivations—which Helseth cannot know other than what they themselves have written. There is of course no footnote citing where to find the motives Helseth ascribes to them, because no such source exists. Boyd, who the article specifically targets, clearly expresses how he came to hold the Open view in the very book Helseth cites most (God of the Possible). Boyd describes biblical study and theological inquiry as the beginning of his adoption of the Open view. He bases his acceptance of the view on its biblical, theological, devotional, and practical merits.20 He does not base his advocacy on whether it is “palatable.” Such a characterization is meant to imply that Neo-Calvinists like Helseth are stronger, have more stomach, for a God who predestines the Holocaust and Open theists are merely weak-minded or weak-willed. It’s a derisive remark that smacks of machismo. This is highly typical. Neo-Calvinists routinely portray themselves as tough guys who have a tough God. Only weak men or women would have a problem with theological determinism. This, of course, is ludicrous. Christian theologians have rejected determinism as far back as Church theological tradition goes. And of course Arminius rejected theological determinism and he certainly doesn’t fit the stereotype of a weak-minded postmodern who Neo-Calvinists like Helseth want readers to picture.

3. Sound Bites and the Problem of Evil:

The way discussion and debate takes place in U.S. American culture has devolved since the inventions of the Internet and the 24-hour cable news cycle. Whereas in the recent past there was at least some cultural reward for treating opponents with respect and giving their arguments a fair hearing, no such rewards remain. Since at least the 90s, theological debate in the U.S. evangelical academy has taken on far too much resemblance to shouting talk shows filled with partisan political pundits and the chatrooms and message boards which provide relative anonymity and outlet for vitriol. Worst of all, Christian scholars in this context have compromised their own integrity to prove their fellow Christians scholars wrong on theological matters which ultimately point to the God both parties worship. That is what took place in the remainder of this article written by Helseth. Tactics unbecoming of a Christian, let alone a Christian leader—one called to teach others—were practiced in a shameful yet unapologetic way.

YourLogicalFallacyIs_TexasSharpshooterFirst, Helseth sets out in section II to critique Greg Boyd’s theodicy—his theology of God’s relationship to evil—yet does not engage significantly with God at War, a book written years previously that specifically addresses the problem of evil within the larger framework of Boyd’s trinitarian warfare theodicy. Instead, Helseth focuses almost all his energy on responding to God of the Possible and a few scattered quotes from online discussion (I will address those shortly). This is either a blisteringly ignorant oversight or an intentionally dishonest tactic. God at War is far more geared toward the theologically academic, while God of the Possible is expressly written for laypersons. God at War deals extensively with the problem of evil, while God of the Possible devotes less than 10 pages!21 Furthermore, Letters from a Skeptic (Scripture Press, 1994), which Helseth cites, was likewise written for an audience who are not accustomed to debating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. It is a book which features letters Boyd wrote to his atheist father who was not a philosopher, nor a terribly educated man. The language Boyd uses isn’t technical nor meant primarily to be philosophically precise. The primary purpose was to provide intelligible and sound solutions to intellectual obstacles to his father surrendering his life to Jesus.

Critiquing Boyd’s theodicy on select pages from books for laypeople rather than an academically-geared book on the very subject you claim to address is a prime example of a deck-stacking argument or a “Texas sharpshooter fallacy.”

There is video on YouTube of Mark Driscoll using the Free Will Defense in a televised debate over the existence of Satan22, yet were I to exclusively use that footage to evaluate his overall theology, I would be forced to conclude he is an Arminian rather than one of the most vocal Neo-Calvinists in history. That is the type of misrepresentation Helseth commits in this article.

Second, further evidence that Helseth has not analyzed Boyd’s theodicy to any significant extent is abundantly clear from the fact that he makes no mention of the role Satan plays in Boyd’s theodicy. Satan is so central to Boyd’s answer to the problem of evil that One Month after this article was published, Boyd published a book entitled Satan and the Problem of Evil.23 That bears repeating: Helseth does not include Satan in Boyd’s theodicy while one month later Boyd publishes a book entitled Satan and the Problem of Evil. Yes, it was that kind of hack-job!

Completely contrary to Helseth’s characterization, Greg Boyd’s theodicy is not singularly rooted in his understanding of the nature of the future, or in Libertarian Free Will—though both are important beliefs for Boyd. Instead, Boyd’s theodicy is primarily rooted in his view that our world is caught in the cross-fire of an unseen, cosmic, spiritual battle between God and Satan, Light and darkness. If Helseth cared one iota about representing Boyd’s theodicy correctly, that would have been the first line in this article.

Here is Boyd in his own words,

“…it is quite peculiar that after Augustine, throughout the church’s history up to the present, very few thinkers conceived of Satan as being in any way relevant to, let alone central to, the solution to the problem of evil. It is remarkable that the one who in Scripture and in the earliest postapostolic fathers is depicted as the ultimate originator of evil and the one ultimately behind all the world’s horrors has been thoroughly ignored in discussions on the problem of evil. […]

By contrast, the New Testament and early postapostolic church always thought of the problem of evil in the context of spiritual warfare. The world is caught up in a cosmic battle and thus is saturated with horrifying suffering and diabolical evil. That is the final explanation for evil.”24

Third, Helseth engages in what I can only describe as sophomoric exploitation by quoting unpublished comments Boyd supposedly made in the comments of a “discussion thread” on his long retired website.25 There is no format for citing a comment submitted in a “discussion thread” nor any form of online message board, because such venues are not sources for academic journal articles like the one Helseth here writes. Helseth’s scholarship here is not only unprofessional, it is amazingly immature. He doesn’t even have the decency to write Boyd for an official statement of his view on the comments so that he could at least correct his spelling. I’m convinced that were the social media websites we now have in existence at the time of this article’s writing, Helseth would be writing about Boyd’s tweets and Facebook statuses. And if the ETS had any academic integrity, they would have rejected it for publishing.

4. Coercion, Causation, Parameters, and Prayer:

YourLogicalFallacyIs_StrawManThe crux of Helseth’s critique of Boyd’s theodicy is based entirely on a mischaracterization of his view. Based solely on a few instances where Boyd seems to contradict himself, Helseth ignores everything else Boyd has ever written and focuses exclusively on the few instances that serve his counter-argument. Specifically, Helselth claims Boyd’s theodicy makes room for divine coercive action when convenient thus rendering Open theism inconsistent and incoherent. He cites Boyd’s use of “freedom within parameters” as an analogy for how God can predict some future outcomes while facing multiple possibilities for others. The “parameters,” Helseth claims, are where Boyd compromises his position and affirms “unilateral” “coercion” by God. However, a critical reader will notice right away that Helseth is playing fast and loose with terms once again. For Boyd, “coerced” cannot mean that a choice is made by God rather than the free agent since the very essence of Incompatiblism is that free will and determinism are logically incompatible. For Boyd, “coerced” can only mean that all free agents have their relatively-autonomous freedom constrained by their causally-settled context. Human beings are empowered with contrary choice (Libertarian free will), but this does not mean human beings can make any decision at any time. Countless decisions are simply not available to anyone and many are not available to us due to the causally-linked past.

Jonah disobeys God. God wants him to go to Nineveh, but he runs the other direction. That is the power of contrary choice. Jonah did not march to Nineveh like a robot. Instead, God severely constrained Jonah’s freedom—placing him in the belly of a great fish. Regardless of whether you consider this narrative historically literal or metaphorical and/or mythical, the point remains the same: God constrained Jonah’s freedom. Now, were God’s actions “coercive”? That depends on your definition. If by “coercive,” you mean that God acted upon Jonah in order to influence his decision, then yes, God acted coercively. This is how Boyd might be comfortable saying God acts coercively. But Boyd is certainly not saying God removes a person’s free will (power of contrary choice). Jonah could have elected to stay in the belly of that fish and die. He did not have to repent; he chose to repent.

Or consider Paul’s testimony to the Athenians regarding divine parameters and human freedom:

“From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us.” – Acts 17.26-27 NIV

Human beings cannot freely choose where they are to be born, others make that choice for us. Parents, civil authorities, nature all influence where a child is to be born. Recall that Jesus was born in Bethlehem for these reasons. These Paul describes as parameters which constrain our freedom, and attributes them ultimately to divine providence. However, Paul does not see these as the removal of all volition. Quite the opposite! Instead, Paul sees them as providing space for discovery of God, though God is everywhere. Paul does not think the future outcome of this search is settled because he states that a person would “perhaps reach out for [God]”. Note that this “perhaps” is also in the ESV!

It is difficult to imagine how Boyd could explain the concept of freedom within parameters more clearly than this,

“The notion that some of the future is open while some of it is settled seems contradictory to some people. I suspect this is because they are used to thinking in all-or-nothing categories about the future—either the future is totally open or totally settled. Since thy are certain from the Word of God that it cannot be totally open, they conclude that it is totally settled. This all-or-nothing way of thinking about the future is misguided. Far from being contradictory, or even just unusual, the view that the future is partly open and partly settled is the view we all assume unconsciously every time we make a decision.

For example, I am at the present time deliberating about whether or not I should travel to San Diego next month. In deliberating about this matter, I assume that it is up to me to decide when, where, and how I will travel. How could I honestly deliberate about this decision if I didn’t believe this? But notice, I also assume that much of the future is already settled and not up to me to decide. To deliberate about whether I should travel to San Diego or not, I have to assume that (among other things) San Diego will exist next month, that the laws of physics will operate as they do today, and that I will be basically the same person then as I am now. I cannot deliberate about issues that are up to me do decide without presupposing the settledness of many other issues that are not up to me to decide.This example illustrates that we cannot consider choices without presupposing that the future is partly open and partly settled—the very position that the open view advocates. If we believe that all of the future was open, we could not decide between options. If we believed that none of the future was open, we could not decide between options. Hence, the fact that we obviously do decide between options suggests that at some level we all assume that the future is partly open and partly closed.”26

Helseth’s chief critique of Boyd’s theodicy is that it makes God arbitrary and cruel because he does not intervene more often or when Helseth thinks God should. Helseth arrives at this conclusion after carefully stuffing his Boyd of Straw with sound bites designed to misrepresent Boyd’s view. He routinely accuses Boyd of contending that God acts “unilaterally.” This is patently false. One of the essential aspects of the Open theism Boyd advocates is that God has created a world inhabited by relatively-autonomous creatures—human beings—with whom God desires covenant relationship. This relationship that God desires is one of cooperation, mutuality. Scripture constantly compares God’s covenant relationship with his people to marriage, to the relationship between a Father or Mother and children. No relationships of greater intimacy, giving-and-receiving love, exist in human experience.

If Helseth was interested in representing Boyd’s view with even a modicum of scholarly respect, he would have acknowledged Boyd’s extensive doctrine of prayer. In Boyd’s theodicy, and theology of providence in general, God has hinged significant aspects of the future’s outcome on the voluntary participation of free agents. God’s nature is relational and so is God’s action in the world. John Polkinghorne, a world-renowned quantum physicist and theologian, is also an Open theist. He explains this concept of divine cooperation with humanity in prayer succinctly and poignantly,

“[Prayer] is a very curious thing in a way, because what are we doing? Are we drawing God’s attention to something God hadn’t noticed, or giving God a clever idea about what to do about it? Obviously none of those things are true, so what are we doing when we pray? I think we’re doing two things. One is: we have a certain room for maneuver, limited, but a certain room for maneuver to bring about the future. And I believe that God also has a providential power to bring about the future. And when we pray we’re offering our room for maneuver to be taken by God and used in alignment with God’s providential purposes. And I believe that things happen when human and divine wills are lined up in that sort of way, that would not be possible when they’re at cross-purposes with each other.I like to sometimes use the scientific metaphor of laser light. Laser light is powerful because it’s what physicists call coherent. All the waves are in step, all the crests come together and add up, all the troughs come together to add down, to maximum affect. Light that’s incoherent, the waves are out of step, a trough and a crest coincide and cancel each other out. I think we’re seeking a laser light coherence with God in prayer.”27

Like Polkinghorne, Boyd too believes much of the future hangs on whether or not free agents act—perhaps especially in prayer. In precisely the kind of “particular evil” scenario depicted by Helseth, Boyd specifically contends that prayer has the power to change the potential outcomes of such circumstances. He writes,

“In the open view account of [a potential future robbery in a park] …God could have seen that it was becoming more and more likely that you were going to take a stroll in the park where this robber was likely to be hanging out. He knows the thoughts and intentions of all individuals perfectly and can play them out in his mind like an infinitely wise chess master anticipating every possible combination of moves his opponent could ever make. It would thus be no problem for him to see the likelihood, in not (at this point) the certainty, that this ordeal would happen unless he intervened.Now let us assume you are a person who frequently talks and listens to God. What is more, you have family and friends who pray for you on a consistent basis. For the God who has designed the world so that prayer makes a great difference in how things transpire (see chapter 3), this is no minor consideration. Prayer opens the door for God to sovereignly alter what otherwise would come to pass. And the happy result is that a robbery that might have occurred was prevented.”28

YourLogicalFallacyIs_EmotionNowhere in Helseth’s accounting of Boyd’s theodicy does he mention the shared responsibility of those free agents upon whom God has leveraged significant say-so through prayer. His extended remarks about the plausibility of God preventing the Holacaust, aside from being one giant appeal to emotion, completely ignore the role prayer may or may not have factored into God’s “intervention.”

Boyd believes that God has chosen to act in the world in coherence with the wills of God’s people. In Nazi Germany, the sad fact Helseth ignores is that the Church was incredibly complicit in the evil.

5. Complexity, Ambiguity, and Boyd’s Theodicy

Finally, the primary reason Helseth’s critique of Boyd’s theodicy is a caricature is because conspicuously absent is Boyd’s robust discourse on the complexity of the universe and the ambiguity inherent in being finite creatures. Even a cursory survey of God at War reveals that Boyd’s primary explanations for the presence of evil are not Libertarian free will and the partly open nature of the future, but rather 1) Satan; 2) our world being caught in the middle of an unseen, cosmic, spiritual war; and 3) the extreme complexity of the creation and our utter inability to understand it as finite creatures.

“To be sure, individuals throughout the biblical narrative occasionally express convictions that come close to the classical-philosophical formulation of the problem of evil. […]What is interesting about all this, however, is that Scripture itself never teaches that these questions are based on an accurate understanding of God! […]

Indeed, as mentioned earlier, in a number of places Scripture seems to directly refute this position. The book of Job, I later argue, is a prolonged assault on just this erroneous ‘moralistic accountant’ conception of God (see chapter four). This false dichotomous assumption, reflected throughout this poetic dialogue, that Job’s sufferings are either Job’s fault or God’s fault is refuted by both the prologue of this book, which ascribes the afflictions to Satan (Job 1—2), and the divine monologues in which Yahweh does not take responsibility for Job’s afflictions but rather refers Job to the vastness and complexity of the creation, a creation that includes forces of chaos (such as Leviathan [chap. 41] and Behemouth [40:15-24] which need to be tamed.)”29

Any serious scholarly critique of Boyd’s theodicy would necessarily engage his views on Satan, spiritual warfare, and the complexity of the universe. Helseth fails to significantly address any of them.

6. Conclusion:

Helseth’s article in the journal of the ETS was one of the earliest examples of what has now become a routine caricature of Open theism by Neo-Calvinists. His is like a prototype, only models 10 years later have not improved. Embedded in today’s attacks on Open theism are found all the same fallacies and scholarship tricks:

  • Straw Man fallacy
  • Texas Sharpshooter fallacy (aka deck-stacking)
  • Appeal to emotion
  • Genetic fallacy
  • Black and White fallacy (aka false dichotomy)
  • No True Scotsman fallacy

To date, now nearly 20 years since The Openness of God, no serious scholarly critique of Open theism has produced evidence of significant flaws. All attempts have fallen flat and only fear of “controversy” has kept Open theism from becoming a more mainstream evangelical position. Nevertheless, Open theism continues to gain proponents in the evangelical theological academy despite the Neo-Calvinists attempts to prevent its influence. The future is not entirely settled with regard to Open theism. We’ll just have to wait and see if it will remain a minority position.


  1. The Openness of God: A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God (Intervarsity Press, 1994) was written by Clark Pinnock, Richard Rice, John Sanders, William Hasker, and David Basinger.
  2. John Sanders includes extensive research into historic proponents of what he calls “dynamic omniscience” in his book The God Who Risks (Intervarsity Press, 2007, Second Edition), chapter 5: “Divine Relationality in the Christian Tradition.” Greg Boyd has also highlighted many early proponents on his blog, and will attempt to compile a comprehensive survey in his forthcoming book, The Myth of a Blueprint.
  3. “Neo-Calvinism” or “New Calvinism” is a recent movement of fundamentalist Christian authors and ministry practitioners in the US and other Westernized nations who equate the “five points of Calvinism,” abbreviated T. U. L. I. P., with “Reformed” theology, “orthodox” theology, and “the Gospel.” They are overwhelmingly white, male, and the vast majority reject the ordination of women, espousing “Complementarianism.”. John Piper, Al Mohler, and Mark Driscoll are noted representatives of this movement.
  4. In 2000, Greg Boyd’s Open theism came under scrutiny at the Annual Meeting of the Baptist General Conference while he was a faculty member at Bethel. Two resolutions were passed. The first was specifically against Open theism, and the second was specifically in favor of keeping Boyd as a professor. John Piper was very disappointed with this decision who wanted Boyd ousted for his Open theism. In 2002, Roger Nicole, a Calvinist Baptist scholar, presented the motion to investigate Pinnock and Sanders’ Open theism on the grounds that he claimed it prevents them from affirming the ETS’s most important criteria for membership: the affirmation of biblical inerrancy. John Piper supported the motion and it passed. Incidentally, one does not have to affirm that the Scriptures as we have them today are inerrant to gain acceptance into the ETS. As their official statement contends, one only has to affirm that they were inerrant “in the autographs.” Since no autographs have ever been found, affirming such a tenet requires little if any evidence or research, but is instead a cultural and political litmus test.
  5. See, “Evangelical Inquisitions“, “Why open theism doesn’t even matter (very much)“, and “Is Open Theism a Type of Arminianism?“, Against Calvinism (Zondervan, 2011).
  6. Roger Olson: “Open theism: a test case for evangelicals
  7. ON DIVINE AMBIVALENCE: OPEN THEISM AND THE PROBLEM OF PARTICULAR EVILS
  8. Sanders, The God Who Risks, p.141.
  9. “Relational Theology” is an umbrella term that covers a broad spectrum of theologies that are all related to one another by their common values of relationship, freedom, and love. Examples of Relational theologies include, but are not limited to: missional theologies, feminist and/or womanist theologies, Pentecostal and/or charismatic theologies, liberation and/or postcolonial theologies, Wesleyan theology, process theology, open theology, Arminian and/or holiness theologies, trinitarian theologies. For more, see Relational Theology: A Contemporary Introduction edited by Brint Montgomery, Thomas Jay Oord, and Karen Winslow.
  10. Greg Boyd, God of the Possible (Baker, 2000), p.15-16.
  11. Clark Pinnock, Most Moved Mover (Baker, 2001), p.99-100.
  12. Sanders, The God Who Risks, p.15.
  13. Greg Boyd, “The Open-Theism View,” in Divine Foreknowledge: Four Views (Intervarsity Press, 2001), p.14-15.
  14. Sanders, The God Who Risks, p.167-168.
  15. Incompatibilism is the philosophical position that determinism and free agency are incompatible.
  16. Terence H. Irwin, Aristotle: “Causes” (Rutledge, 1998).
  17. “Classical theism” is that stream of Christian theological tradition which attempts concord between aspects of classical philosophical theories, such as Platonism for example, and Christian theology or the biblical witness. The single most central issue in this concord is the static nature of God in Greek philosophical thought versus the dynamic nature of God in Hebraic thought and Scripture. Philo and Augustine are prime examples of this stream. John Sanders writes a historical-theological critique of classical theism in The Openness of God (chapter 2) and Greg Boyd also critiques classical theism in God of the Possible (p.22, 130-131). He writes, “In a forthcoming volume, I demonstrate historically that most of the responsibility for the canonization of the ‘timeless’ model of perfection in the Christian theological tradition rests on St. Augustine. He was in this respect strongly influenced not only by Platonism but by Stoicism and Manichaeism as well. See G. Boyd, The Myth of a Blueprint (Downers Grove, Ill., InterVarsity Press, forthcoming).” (p.172)
  18. See: “Random Updates“, “Hellenistic Philosophy and the Problem of Chalcedon“, “The Paradox of Plutarch and Early Christian Theology“, “Plutarch’s Insightful Warfare Worldview“, “Spiritual Warfare and the ‘Eternal Now’
  19. Sanders, The God Who Risks, p.140.
  20. Boyd, God of the Possible, p.7-8, 10-11.
  21. 98-103, 135-136, 153-156.
  22. See “Nightline Face Off: Does Satan Exist? Part 3/10”  (From the beginning to ~1:19).
  23. Boyd, Satan and the Problem of Evil: Constructing a Trinitarian Warfare Theodicy (Intervarsity Press, 2001) October.
  24. Boyd, God at War (Intervarsity Press, 1997), p.56.
  25. Footnote 32, p.502.
  26. Boyd, God of the Possible, p.32-33.
  27. John Polkinghorne, “Prayer seeking understanding“.
  28. Boyd, God of the Possible, p.152-153.
  29. Boyd, God at War, p.51-52.